By: James Figy
February 1, 2018
When Tracy Humann took over as CEO of Telamco in 2013, she knew little about manufacturing. She understood how to run a business from her 20 years as the director of a Montessori preschool. But making membrane switches and keypads was more the domain of her father, Phil Telander, who founded the Lonsdale company in 1968.
The transition wasn’t optimal, but nothing about the situation was. “My dad had been diagnosed with leukemia, and we thought we were going to have six to nine months, and we had less than three,” Humann said. “I started here on December 3, and my dad passed away on the 13th of December. So we very literally worked together for eight hours.”
What brought her up to speed was the help of Telamco employees and the Enterprise Minnesota peer council for CEOs in Owatonna. Manufacturing business owners from across southern Minnesota travel to Steele County to receive feedback and stay current with the industry at monthly peer council meetings.
Humann said her father had been a member of the peer council for years. However, she didn’t join until one of his former colleagues suggested it during her first few months at Telamco.
Whether one is a new owner or a manufacturing veteran, the Owatonna peer council and similar councils statewide are designed to benefit all professionals in the industry, according to Enterprise Minnesota CEO Bob Kill.
“Peer councils around the state … serve as, first, a networking opportunity because sometimes owning and running a business is a little lonely. But, second, they act as advisory boards, because they hold each other accountable as if they have an advisory board,” Kill said. “So it’s an important part of engaging with the clients and helping them get to the next level on a vitality and growth journey.”
Building an organization for manufacturers
Enterprise Minnesota’s story begins in 1987 when the state legislature formed the public Greater Minnesota Corporation. According to the organization’s website, it morphed into “a publicly funded economic development organization” called Minnesota Technology, Inc. from 1991 to 2003. After becoming a private 501(c)(3) organization in 2004, it adopted its current name in 2008.
While Enterprise Minnesota has always helped companies improve processes and cut costs to bolster their lean manufacturing practices, its focus has changed a little over the years. The organization now assists companies with quality management systems, ISO certification, strategic plans, marketing and developing employees through workforce training.
The help comes in a few forms. First, the organization’s business experts provide one-on-one consultation services for more than 100 companies each year. Second, about 100 members take part in peer councils across the state that are geared toward professionals in various roles, whether owners, entrepreneurs, operations managers or second-generation leaders. Being open and trusting is important, so competing businesses aren’t allowed to be in the same council.
The Owatonna group started 15 years ago, becoming the first peer council. Some of the 12 companies currently in it have participated for more than a decade, including Akkerman Inc. in Brownsdale, Harmony Enterprises in Harmony and Hanson Silo Company in Lake Lillian.
Peer council membership is $4,800 for one year. But it’s worth it for those looking to improve their business practices, such as Pat McDermott, president of J-C Press in Owatonna.
“The great value in Enterprise Minnesota, from my perspective, is they all have significant experience in running businesses or functional areas,” said McDermott, who has been a member for nearly two years. “Their experiences are real-world, in-the-trenches sort of stuff.”
Meetings that matter
The Owatonna peer council meets every third Monday of the month for about four hours. The meetings begin with each member giving an update and asking for advice on “fast burn” problems, such as the rising cost of healthcare or a struggling employee, according to Humann.
“It was first described to me as: ‘a situation that is keeping you up at night,’” she said.
After that, the meetings often feature presentations on a particular topic from Enterprise Minnesota consultants or outside industry experts. Peer council members are able to talk over the issues with the speaker and one another to share their concerns and experiences.
One session that Humann found very useful was with a marketing firm from Hutchinson. She probably never would’ve heard of the company, being 70 miles away, but the presentation sold her on hiring it.
“I loved what they had to say, I loved how they worked, and we have been with them for just over a year. I see huge results, lots of changes,” she said.
For McDermott, there hasn’t been one single takeaway from his time in the council that has revolutionized how he operates J-C Press. Instead, the peer council has had a cumulative effect from many small pieces of advice and information.
“It’s just been very beneficial to discuss topics, success and issues with other business owners who have been through similar circumstances,” he said. “Their perspectives on how to approach business challenges are invaluable.”
Sometimes, the peer councils visit a group member’s facilities to observe the practices, which allows them to give more specific feedback. Human enjoys seeing the processes at each plant — everything from welding to injection molding.
Telamco is different from the others in many ways, she said. But there’s one thing that unites the peer council’s members.
“We are probably the smallest company within my peer group — employee size and dollar size — but one of the things that I’ve learned through the group … is that whether you’re big or small, everybody deals with the same problems,” she said. “It’s sometimes nice to know that you’re not the only one that has to go through this.”
James Figy is a writer based in Mankato. A native Hoosier, he has reported consumer and business news for magazines and newspapers in Minnesota and Indiana.